Arthur Schnitzler
translated by Nicholas Rudall
Ivan R. Dee ($9.95)

by Douglas Messerli

Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde, originally titled Der Reigen (a round-dance or roundelay) and published as Hands Around in English, was first "handed around" in a private edition in 1900, Vienna. The play, which follows the sexual affairs of ten couples, was recognized as too outspoken even by its author. Schnitzler was, nonetheless, shocked that when La Ronde was produced in 1903, it caused a major scandal, anti-Semitic riots, and the banning of the play. It was not revived again in that city until 1920.

Translator Nicholas Rudall, disliking the notion of being “handed around” since it implies the idea of venereal disease—an interpretation that has limited discussion of the work's themes—takes his title from Max Ophul’s great film rendition of 1950, La Ronde, which retains the concept of the dance while including other “circles," such as the group of friends that make up the sexual partners of the play. (Ophuls' film, however, arguably overdoes it, with its constant repetition of waltz music, a carousel motif, and even images of the frames of film as they weave through the spool of the projector.)

None of the play's characters, despite intense denials to the contrary, are innocents. The young prostitute of the first scene readily seeks out sexual contact with a sailor, offering her body up to him for free. The young maid of Scene 2 knows very well how to flirt with the soldier while drawing him into the bushes; she is equally willing to bed with the inexperienced young son the house. Although the wife of Scene 4 may need a more careful seduction than the maid, the young gentleman has prepared for almost everything, and even though he fails the first time around, he soon comes alive in her caresses.

It is in Scenes 4 and 5 that the play truly comes alive as well, and begins to intimate Schnitzler's true concerns. Part of the method that the young wife uses to arouse her would-be lover is to question him—not only about his past, and his affairs with other women, but about his own position in relationship to sex. We feel that she is seeking some sort of understanding, if not about sexuality in general, then at least about her feelings and her own break with cultural taboos.

This becomes more apparent in the next scene, where we come to understand the cause of her frustrations—her businessman husband is much older than she and his sexual attractions are a purposeful on-and-off again activity, what he describes as a attempt to keep the honeymoon alive. He cannot even imagine that she might be unfaithful, and insists that she should dessert any female acquaintance who might possibly do such a thing. Yet she insistently questions him, it is clear, just to comprehend why these situations occur. Has he ever had sex with a married woman? He grumpily admits that he has—before meeting her. But we see in the very next scene that he is still not averse to having extra-marital affairs.

All of these sexual couplings are heterosexual, in part because Schnitzler presents relationships in which men and women are equal—at least in terms of their hypocrisy. The last two scenes, however, portray a man who has his mind, at least, occupied by something else. In Scene 9, the handsome Count visits an actress midday with the permission of her mother. He is startled by her suggestion that they immediately have sex; he's not ready for it, he argues, it's like having a drink in the morning. No, they must wait until after the theater, after dinner, at the appropriate time and place. Meanwhile, he talks not of love (he claims "there is no such thing as love"), but of his good friend Louis and other men in his regiment. The actress finally must ask him to remove his sword, and when the seduction scene arrives, it is she who conquers.

In the final scene, the Count awakens in the room of the prostitute, not knowing who she is or where he is, and certain, given his drunken condition, that they have never had sex. The only thing he remembers is that he was in his carriage with his friend Louis. In a final series of questions he recalls a stock gay figure, the straight man who gets drunk to have sex with men, conveniently forgetting everything come morning:

COUNT: (stops) Listen, tell me something. Doesn't it mean anything to you anymore?

WHORE: What?

COUNT: I mean, don't you have any pleasure doing it anymore?

WHORE: (yawning) I need some sleep.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

COUNT: Last night . . . tell me. Didn't I just collapse on the sofa right away?

WHORE: Of course you did. . . . with me.

COUNT: With you . . . well, I . . .

WHORE: But you passed right out.

Love, even pleasure is missing from most of these encounters—the interchange accomplished through the revolutions of the dance and the attendant dizziness is what matters. Schnitzler's consistent "Blackouts" at the moment of sexual contact are the perfect device in that they indicate the unimportance of the act itself.

Early in the play the maid with her soldier cries out just before the sexual act, "I can't see your face." In a 1982 translation by Sue Barton, the Soldier retorts, "What's my face got to do with it," while Rudall simplifies the Soldier's words into a question: "My face?!" I am not interested in judging which translation is better—Rudall's certainly seems to be a fine, performable version—but the former does remind me of the famed Tina Turner song, "What’s Love Got to Do with It," which I couldn't get out my head while reading this work.

The characters of Schnitzler's play talk endlessly of love, but it's sex they are after, and in the end, it is their search for it that spins them off a life-long dance. The moment he finishes with the young maid, the soldier returns to the dance hall. The young wife returns to her husband after her dalliance with the young man. The Count surely is reunited with his friend Louis, uncertain whether or not anything happened with the sleepy prostitute, who reminds him of someone he has met long ago. Was he once the young soldier of the first scene, completing the circle? In the end, Schnitzler's world is not so much an immoral one as it is a society of dissatisfied beings.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011